Attn: Soccer clubs/leagues — Simple alternative to participation trophy

I found this on Twitter recently and really like the idea. This is something ALL soccer clubs can start copying NOW!

In 2014, I wrote some thoughts about participation trophies. I still agree with that.

I would add a few things, now.

Participation trophies were meant to build self-esteem and keep kids playing sports whether they won or lost.

The intentions are good.

But, the best way to build self-esteem is to encourage players to build competency and mastery in the skills needed to play.

The best way to keep kids playing, whether they win or lose, is to teach them how to deal with wins and losses, while maintaining a competitive spirit, and use the feedback to improve.

Participation trophies have the unintended consequences of rewarding bare minimum effort and ignore the feedback provided by winning and losing.

When the time comes that winning and losing matters, they will be far behind and won’t know how to to deal well with winning or losing.

Here are a few more thoughts on what to do when giving out the Size 2 balls:

Give the balls out on the first day, not the last.

Set expectations with parents.

  • Tell parents how much time and effort it takes for the kids to gain skills. Consistency over the whole year is important. Be thinking in terms of months and years, not days.
  • Convince them to let their children play with the ball in the house.
  • Show them what their children can work on that’s fun, builds good skills and won’t break things — basic dribbling movements like Tom Byer suggests, 1v1 take-away, etc.
  • Sell them more balls. The more the better. Tennis balls are good, too.
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A girl, her ball and a wall

From Be Like Ronaldinho by Lieke Martens (current Best FIFA Women’s Player):

My first memory in life is of my mum taking me to see my older brothers play. I couldn’t wait to run out onto the pitch myself, but I had to wait until I was 4 years old. So I’d take a small ball with me to play on my own. That’s how people in the village came to recognize me: the little girl who was always running around kicking the ball.

And when I say always, I mean always. When we got home from school at three o’clock, and my friends would go play with their Barbies, I’d play football with my brothers and their friends. They were all older than me, but they always let me join in. We just practiced and had fun. Even when I had nobody to play with, I still had my beloved ball — and a special companion.

A wall.

Good advice. HT: Tom Byer.

Culture vs. Everything else

The following is a personal experience that exemplifies the illustration in the previous post.

My son’s soccer team is the typical American suburban, pay-to-play team, where high percentage of what the players have learned about the game has come through organized play rather than culture.

This winter, a kid from an immigrant family joined the team. Several of his friends, also from immigrant families from various places around the world, were interested, as well, and joined in some practices and futsal games.

Most had not played organized soccer, yet their ball skills and game IQ were superior to the rest of the team and were likely good enough to make elite level teams.

While many of our players like to tell us why they don’t need to learn to juggle the ball, the visitor’s younger siblings were on the sidelines juggling the ball.

Kicking and Screaming

“Get the ball to the Italians!”

The writers of the 2005 soccer movie Kicking and Screaming, starring Will Farrell and Mike Ditka, understood what Tom Byer says in his book Soccer Starts at Home.

To improve the last place team, the coaches (Farrell and Ditka) recruit the nephews of the guy who owns the Italian deli.

When they walk into the deli, their kids are in the back room juggling the ball, which is a perfect example of Soccer Starts at Home.

The Italian kids carry the team to the championship game. The team’s strategy was, “Get the ball to the Italians.”

In my early days of learning soccer as adult, I was on a last place adult league team.

One season two French guys joined our team and carried us to within a goal of being champions.

Much like the movie, our strategy was, “Get the ball to the French guys!”

After one of the games, we were chatting. We asked, “How’d you get so good?”

Their answer, “We’re not. We’re average in France. That’s how bad you guys are — even the ones you think are good here! But, we grew up playing football with our pals all the time. We’d make you look like NBA All-Stars if we played basketball with you, because we didn’t play that.”

Is England better than people think in football (soccer)?

I’m a sucker for counter intuitive arguments. The book Soccernomics makes several. Here are couple of my favorites.

The first argument addresses conventional wisdom that England hasn’t fared well in international competition of late because so many internationals play in the English Premier League, taking valuable development time away from England’s top players.

The same type of thinking is behind the MLS limiting international roster spots, with the idea of the  MLS becoming the garden to grow USMNT players.

Here are the authors of Soccernomics regarding England’s situation in their 2014 edition:

You could argue that English players account for “only” 32 percent of starting players in the Premier League. Or you could argue they account for a massive 32 percent of starting players, more than any other nationality in what is now the world’s toughest league.

Indeed, since the Premier League has become more international, England’s performances have improved. [As measured by percentage of times they reached the quarter finals of international tournaments].

I’ll be interested to see if that holds in their most recent edition.

That’s an interesting argument for the MLS to consider.

Pay-to-play in the U.S. vs. “Crowding out the middle class” in the England

Many blame ‘pay-to-play’ for limiting the talent pool in the U.S. to the softies in suburbia.

The authors of Soccernomics contend the reverse is true in England. England’s soccer culture is unwelcoming of middle class players, so many don’t bother. Many of England’s greats have come from the working class.

As England has become more prosperous, its middle class has grown and working class has shrunk. This cultural barrier has limited the talent pool to a shrinking part of the population.

Check your expectations

Another argument made in Soccernomics is that England’s expectations are too high. Anything short of World Cup champs is considered failure.

They lend some credence to this argument by regression. In other words, they controlled for some important factors, like population, experience on the world stage and resources.

They then rank the top countries based their performance after normalizing for these factors. England outperformed and ranked in the top 10.

That means England has something going for it. Likely, that’s the strength of England’s soccer culture compared to the rest of the world.

Why wait for a program? Get started NOW

On Twitter, Tom Byer recently posted a message thanking all the people for the direct messages he has received about starting programs with their local soccer associations.

What program do you need?

Read his book.

If you are a parent of a young one, he says get some small balls in the house. Show your kids how to move the ball in every direction while keeping it close. Play some ‘take the ball’ 1v1 with them, so they learn how to shield it with their body. Discourage just kicking it. Discourage using hands. Keep the ball at their feet and move with it.

Just do that.

If you run a Bitty soccer program, stop doing shooting and passing stations. Start doing the above and teach parents to do it at home.

I’ll add, if your child is older than 6 or 8, it’s not too late! I’ve seen kids of all ages improve once they start practicing with the ball consistently. I’ve improved, myself, at a much more advanced age.

What to expect

Be patient. In my experience, it takes 3-5 years of consistent effort to become decent, no matter what age you are when you start.

That fits Tom’s experience with his own kids and fits with the acquisition time of similar motor skills needed in other sports.

You will see some noticeable improvements in as little as a few weeks and improvements along the way, but don’t lose sight of the 3-5 year time frame.

It’s too easy to get complacent after making some progress and let months or a year go by without touching the ball.

It’s also easy to get frustrated during long plateau periods where you are touching the ball, but the progress isn’t noticeable like during your ‘quickening’ periods. Keep at it.

After the first 3-6 months of improvement, progress gets choppier, but still happens.

What Tom describes above is a soccer equivalent to playing catch with baseballs and footballs or playing OUT and 1-on-1 in driveway basketball.

These basic and fun activities help people of all ages learn basic motor and coordination skills they need to compete in all these sports.

Players in these sports who don’t do these activities outside of team practice will not be playing these sports much past 10 years old, just as Tom says that many kids quit soccer when they realize they don’t have the technical competence to compete.

What is technical competence?

I’d like to put some concrete on that. I’ve seen Twitter posts attacking Tom along the lines of…”How do you measure technical competence??”

If it were baseball, I doubt many people would expect a 10-year-old who can’t catch a ball to make it onto a competitive team. That player’s technical deficiency is obvious to everyone. We all know the cure. Go play catch!

Yet, I’ve seen competitive DIVISIONS of soccer filled with players who can’t trap the ball and few seem to notice.

That’s the cultural problem Tom highlights.

We know baseball well enough to know that catching is a basic skill needed by all players.

We don’t know soccer well enough to know that trapping the ball is a basic skills needed by all players. People who don’t know soccer don’t know what a good trap looks like.